Maybe Rafael Nadal is no longer finished as a Grand Slam champion off the French Open’s red clay. Following his Indian Wells title, Nadal did more than prove his competitive viability on hard courts. He has resurrected his rivalry with Novak Djokovic.
Yes, Roger Federer is the No. 2 ranked player in the world and possible favorite for Wimbledon, but the short-term ramifications of his back injury and the clay-court season may put him on the back burner for a short time.
True, Andy Murray has joined the Grand Slam fray and is targeting the No. 1 ranking, but there is not yet a sense that he can dominate the tour or establish an epic rivalry with Djokovic.
There are the also-rans who bid for Grand Slams but who fluctuate like a short-term stock. This month's flavor is the resurgent Juan Martin del Potro.
Nadal vs. Djokovic has already been a great rivalry, but it feels like unfinished business.
The Great Schism Over Nadal
With Nadal, there is no middle ground. He is either scowling or celebrating. He is healthy enough to contend for titles, or he is rebuilding on the sidelines for his next attack. He is lionized or loathed.
Tennis fans draw clear lines when discussing the polarizing Nadal. There are those who revere his propensity to fight for every last point, as if he were defending planet Earth against science fiction invaders. They love his stoic countenance and timely celebratory bursts. There are fans who believe his tennis dominance on clay and hall-of-fame success on other surfaces has made him the greatest player in modern times.
Nadal is also despised. Fan bases that support his great rivals Federer and Djokovic have a competitive rivalry with Nadal’s fan base. Many attempt to undermine Nadal's career achievements, oddly enough, by intimating that his record-breaking clay-court achievements should have some sort of asterisk next them, as if clay was a second-rate surface. He is still labeled a specialist despite four Grand Slam titles on grass and hard courts.
There are also tennis fans who feel Nadal pushes the envelope with his mannerisms. Nadal has often taken extra time between points and changeovers. He allegedly receives coaching prompts during matches. His injuries and time off from tennis are controversial. He unabashedly adjusts his shorts before each serve.
Love him or hate him, he is never ignored. There is usually an emotional reaction to his behaviors and success. There will be many tennis fans rooting against him at the French Open simply because they want someone else to break his lockdown of Roland Garros. Dominance is loved and hated, and the story of its demise is always pending.
Not Much Ado Over Djokovic
The consensus is that Djokovic’s quest to win the 2013 French Open is increasingly more difficult with a healthy Nadal ready to defend his crown. Maybe this is what Djokovic needs to push him to even greater heights.
Djokovic’s epic 2011 three-Slam season was highlighted by Wimbledon and U.S. Open wins against Nadal. Their rivalry peaked at the 2012 Australian Open with their ironmen slugfest, and temporarily ended with Nadal’s revenge in capturing the French Open title.
Then Federer and Andy Murray starred at London and New York for a memorable tennis summer while Nadal licked his wounds in Mallorca. Djokovic reeled but reloaded for championships at the WTF and 2013 Australian Open, battling through Federer and Murray.
But the spiritual elements to any kind of Djokovic rivalry with Murray and Federer have been flatter without Nadal. It’s similar to how the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry suddenly disappeared with Borg’s inexplicable retirement. McEnroe still had success for a few more years, but bemoaned the loss of his greatest rival.
Djokovic is energized by Nadal. He saves his best tennis and intensity to defeat him. His resilience and heart have emulated Nadal in so many respects; it’s as if he needs the Nadal challenge to keep growing and fighting, even as he outdistances everyone on the ATP tour for the No. 1 ranking. He is the Jedi Master who must hunt down and destroy his former mentor. There is more purpose to live and train for war because he knows it is his destiny.
Spin the Wheel of Rivalries
The Nadal-Federer rivalry is one for the history books and perhaps the greatest rivalry of all time. In contrast, the budding Djokovic-Murray rivalry simply does not draw a great level of interest from sports fans in general and many tennis fans. There is championship-level shot making and grinding, but it lacks emotional appeal and rivalry panache. It lacks Nadal.
The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry will likely stay in the shadows of Nadal-Federer, but it’s a great consolation prize and already one of the top-10 rivalries in tennis history.
While Federer alone can conduct a match with Mozart tennis, Djokovic’s deadly sideline shots and impeccable backhand are machine-like and corporate. His best tennis needs a contrasting foil to showcase his own remarkable talents. He does not have the hot-blooded charisma of Nadal, but he relishes being pushed to the edges of his limitations and discovering new capabilities.
He needs a rivalry impetus.
The upcoming clay-court season will determine if Nadal extends his clay-court dominance or if Djokovic breaks through for his own career history. Both players will train and play with one eye on his primary opponent, all the while preparing for another showdown at Roland Garros.
This will push both champions. Each will be sharper, fitter and ready for the ultimate challenge. If Djokovic wins the French Open, he will have earned it completely in the eyes of the sports world. There should not be talk of Nadal’s injuries. Nadal’s presence alone is a big win for tennis. His crown will be retained or passed on without excuses.
Best of all, Nadal looks like he can compete for the summer Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Barring physical setbacks, he has come back with a threatening backhand and tough service defense. At Indian Wells, he showed a more aggressive, attacking up-the-line forehand and improved defense on quick-strike concrete.
Djokovic has been spectacular this year with only a recent semifinal loss to Del Potro to snap his 22-match winning streak. He is experienced and hungry for the French Open title. He has now been the No. 1 player in the world for 73 weeks in his career, and by the end of the year can pass Andre Agassi (101), Nadal (102) and Bjorn Borg (109). He is creating his own legend with no end in sight.
Tennis fans are the winners. The drama and mysteries of Nadal’s injury sabbatical can be replaced with the promise of contending for Grand Slam titles. With Nadal, drama will still swirl around like his whirling forehand, but that’s also part of the package.